Thursday, September 01, 2005

ring the bell, skool's in sucka!!!!

summer m. presents: grad skool for beginners
part 2 of 2

yesterday, i posted some excuses for new and returning undergraduates in a fix. today, i shift my focus to graduate skool. now let me just say this: despite the fact that i'm beginning year 4 of my program, i have no words of wisdom for graduate skool. in fact, i'll prolly just end up talking about myself, and i may include some things i've learned along the way. but whatever, i committed to two parts, i'm gonna follow through. new grad students and/or those thinking of giving the ivory tower a shot might find this helpful.

as i've said before, i'm from your typical midwestern town. my daddy works at a factory; my mother works for the phone company; and my stepdad was a police officer for 25 years. though they've ascended some in recent years, my folks are pretty much working class people. only one of my three parents graduated from college, and that happened about 5 years ago. i'm the eldest of four, and i'm a publik skool kid. i say these things for 3 reasons: first, when it came to applying for college, neither i nor my parents knew a great deal about the process; second, only two people affiliated with my high skool really encouraged my allegedly 'gifted' ass. (that's what they call you when you sleep in class and still get A's, though everyday you show up to class with other books--meaning unassigned reading--because all of your textbooks are in your locker, and you forgot the combination a long time ago.)

the first one person outside of my family to exhibit concern about my choices in institutions of higher learning was mrs. patterson, who encouraged me to apply to smith; she was convinced that i would've really flourished there. i don't think she meant that i would've become a lesbian sooner, which is prolly what would've happened. (i mean, she did get me a prom date.) the second was a recruiter from yale. i think she encouraged me to apply because we had a very brief conversation about their eyes were watching god. i applied to neither skool because my parents said there was no way we could afford it. finally, i say this because though my mama was not a crackhead, and i had two father figures who were more or less present in my life, from one or more points of view, i shouldn't be here.

ivy league dreams aside, i went to purdon't and majored in several things--including business and communications--before settling on english. by the time my junior year rolled around, i figured i'd either become a lawyer or a teacher. i found the idea of becoming a professor alluring, but i truly didn't have any idea how you became one. academia was a very cryptic and abstract thing to me. though there are professionals in my family, there are no professors. someone with a ph.d. was merely someone who was a doctor, but couldn't prescribe you medication. but every now and then i'd get a clue of how one got to teach college classes, and publish books and articles no one ever read. and i figured, i like to read, why not go to graduate skool? yeah, yo. summer m. decided to go to graduate skool and get a ph.d. because she liked to read.

though i'd only been an english major for maybe 3 semesters of my entire college career, somehow i got into grad skool. and let me tell you: getting a ph.d. in english is a rude awakening for anyone who goes because he or she enjoys reading fiction. here are some other things i've learned along the way:
  • if you don't drink, you will. and if you do drink, you'll drink more. since alcoholism runs rampant on both sides of my family, i thought imbibing would definitely open a flood gate. despite my genes, after a year of being an uptight asshole, i turned to vodka. i'm still an asshole, but i'm much more relaxed now. the rest is history.
  • if you don't smoke, you will. 'the more man smoke herb, the more babylon fall.' bob marley ain't neva lied.
  • it's really just learning how to talk. if someone twists my arm long enough to get an honest answer about what i really do--meaning, they don't believe that i'm independently wealthy--i'll be honest and tell them i'm getting my ph.d. every now and then i meet someone who is impressed by that. this is absolutely crazy to me. i've told several people that getting a ph.d. is largely learning how to talk a certain way. my first year, i came up with a very long list of words that should appear in any academic paper i write; a sort of academic lexicon, if you will. i realized it often wasn't what someone was saying that blew my mind, it was really how he/she was saying it. sadly, a lot of professors won't give you the time of day if you don't have the 'words to say it.' to add insult to injury, these same profs will adore the idiots in your class who have those words at their disposal but aren't saying shit. i suppose that's kind of like packaging, or advertising. eventually folks will catch on if the product is bad. but if you have a great idea, and say 'use' instead of 'employ', you look like the store brand. using words and phrases like 'problematize' and 'put pressure on' will get your shit off the shelf and into the cart. french words move your product from the bottom to eye level.
  • value your own cultural capital. if you study some other shit (in all senses of the term) , odds are you will meet colleagues who may condescend when you bring up ellison instead of eliot. it's all good. try this: next time you're all chilling, talking some academic bullshit, bring up some shit you have a pretty good feeling your colleagues may not know about. i suppose he/she will perhaps scoff as if whatever you've brought up is superfluous. but as soon as he/she brings up some obscure french film you've neither seen nor heard of, there's a chance that on some level you're somehow an inadequate intellectual. that's just bullshit-- i promise. don't let these mofos invalidate what you study. and definitely don't think they're somehow more learned than you. especially in the first year, everyone's just as scared and just as clueless. in fact, the more i learn, the more inadequate i feel. yet i'm not going to allow a peer to convince me that they know more, and that their knowledge is more valuable than mine. save yourself the stress. do you, and do it proudly.
  • it's all still a mystery. despite what i've written here, i have no idea what the hell i'm talking about. i'm sure some of my other grad skool pals have something much more concrete and true to contribute.

language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison


Blogger Jdid said...

I know what you mean about you probably shouldnt be there. my life followed a similar path ...well except you're doing the phd thing and i stopped short cause I got tired of research and grad school.

and you are right dont let folks invalidate your culture. f em, do your thing, what do they know

1/9/05 16:09  
Blogger MB said...

I've been at emory for like two days and that about sums it up. This boy was like really trying to (maybe not intentionally) shake me with french and german gobbledy gook!! Aww summer! thanks for this!

1/9/05 16:16  
Blogger Harold Gibson said...

Summer this was awesome advice. I tell all my students to value their context, (a word when used in a theological sense means where you go to church and how you have come to understand God) because it will come under attack from those who do not value your culture. This was priceless information. Oh and that stuff about lexicon, very helpful.

1/9/05 17:53  
Blogger a. said...

I think I have a crush on you now. :-)
When I was a senior in high school I didn't know how I was going to make college happen. My father was a factory worker and my mother a receptionist. Community college was looking kinda good. My "smarts" got me a full ride for under-grad. Value your won cultural capital--the truth! Kills them when you value your cultural capital and know all that obscure shit.

1/9/05 21:23  
Blogger Lee said...

Great post, Summer. Anyone who gets through three years of grad school and doesn't get that it's about learning how to talk is--I tend to assume--a pretentious moron who wrongly believes that they are divinely inspired. I'm sure we can both name names, and many of those names would probably be the same ones.

Oddly enough, about the "can't afford private school" thing, I had the same experience. Both my parents came from working class backgrounds, worked their way up to the middle class, and neither have college degrees. I went to a state university for undergrad because there was "no way" they could afford a private school. What I discovered just about a year ago, though (and apparently they keep this information away from the unclean masses) is that if you can get in to a private college, and can't pay for it, most of them (the better-funded ones, anyway) will provide a financial aid package that makes it about the same cost for tuition as a state school.

Anyway, I mention this because parents should know this: if your kids are great students, they should apply for the fancy colleges and universities. Even if the brochure says "tuition: $31,300/yr." There's a good chance that they might forgive around $26,000 or more of that.

1/9/05 21:51  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post.

I think you need a "Part III," though. It should answer the question, do you, Summer, regret going to grad school given its high quotient of bullshit? And if you could have done something else these past few years, what would it have been and for what kind of career would it have prepared you?

1/9/05 23:31  
Blogger summer m. said...

@jdid: a lot of it is bullshit, so i can definitely understand throwing in the towl.

@moya: i definitely had you in mind as i wrote this. i'm glad i could help. you're super smart, and i don't want the idiots to scare you away. not that they would since you're all fearless, but even the most fearless have moments of doubt.

@harold: thanx.

@lee: thanx. i'm really glad you liked the post. it's good to know that my experience isn't unique and that i'm not crazy in my assessment of this thing we do.

as for that info regarding private skool: if i woulda known that in ' what a different experience i would've had. i'll be sure to tell anyone i know that stuff. so much of being privileged is not even about money, but having access to certain information.

@anonymous: i think you've just changed the topic of tomorrow's essay. an answer is forthcoming.

1/9/05 23:44  
Blogger summer m. said...

@a: i love it when someone tells me they have a crush on me. it makes me smile real big. (still smiling.)

2/9/05 00:04  
Blogger Morcy said...

Lee: I don't get it either, about financial aid, but both you and Summer are proof that it's a secret. I was worried applying to high schools that I couldn't pay--my mom told me on my 13th bday that the divorce was gonna leave us a little cash poor. But then I heard about "needs-blind admission." If you can't pay, they find a way. My first year of HS was funded, iirc, largely by my grandmother's legacy, and when my mom had no money the next year, the school covered the diff without batting an eyelid.

Now, I know i went to a special HS, but that encouraged me to shoot for the stars for college. I figured money would never be an object.

Of course, then I found out that that's sorta true, only. UofC and I fought for almost a decade about what I could actually afford to pay for a degree. Finally they realised my mom was broke, my dad in a diff country, and I was living from paycheck to paycheck, and they covered my entire final year.

When people complain about "college costs," I don't ever understand. I can only imagine it's upper middle class types (like my family was on paper), who don't want to hit the nest egg to send junior to college. The type who read US News and their 4-times-a-year "Paying for College" special issue. The poor should get aid and not worry.

I apologise if this comment makes me look like an arrogant ass. $50 is all a college app costs, though... Shoot high is what I'll tell my kids from my ancient ass lay-z-boy with hot sauce stains all over my ratty t-shirt.

2/9/05 00:05  
Blogger Hollambeeee said...

this is really a great post...i know others have said it but i wanted to say it too =)

3/9/05 22:58  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Extra step of advice: keep listening to every single thing Summer is saying when you write, finish, and file your dissertation. No matter what you write, your advisors will want it to be better. No matter what you write, even if they haven't read a word, your friends & family will say it's brilliant, because you finished it and because they love you. Sure, future employers will care about it, but there's way to finesse it if you find out it's not totally up their alley (start busting out those eye-level French words!)

Having just finished a diss., it is really not clear to me that anyone ever fully reads your dissertation who isn't you, so write what you want in the way you want to, and make sure it means something to you.

4/9/05 09:21  
Blogger summer m. said...

2hollambeeee: thanx.

@nick: i'll keep that in mind if/when i write my diss.

4/9/05 10:57  

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